Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 3 + 4 / Rattle

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 3 (41:47)

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 4 (45:31)

“Aimez-vous Brahms?”, the French author Françoise Sagan asked her readers in 1959. Two years later, France and the rest of the world were suddenly hit by a true Brahms fever when the novel was made into a film titled “Goodbye Again”, with Ingrid Bergmann, Yves Montand and Anthony Perkins. Director Anatole Litvak chose a melody from the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Third Symphony from 1883 as the theme for his cinematic masterpiece. Et voilà: all clichés of Brahms’ music being “chaste” or “academic” vanished into thin air. The broad audience’s attention was drawn to the composer’s extensive work, at the same time opening the world of classical music to people, who had never before set foot inside a concert hall. However, this concert will not only delight classical music novices. The interpretation that the Berliner Philharmoniker and their principle conductor Sir Simon Rattle present of Brahms’ fourth and last symphony – enthusiastically celebrated by the public and press – allows us to relive how Brahms completed his symphonic oeuvre with a brilliant final stroke.

Brahms: Symphonies No. 3 & 4

It was near Wiesbaden in summer 1883 where the 50-year-old Johannes Brahms wrote his Third Symphony, working during the morning hours while devoting afternoons to longs walks in the lovely surrounding country. Not until he returned to Vienna did friends and colleagues learn of his first symphony in six years. Following private performances of a two-piano reduction for his circle of friends, the Third had its triumphant premiere in Vienna on 2 December.

Berlin didn’t have to wait long to hear the new work. Already that summer Franz Wüllner, director of the recently established Berlin Philharmonic subscription concerts, became the composer’s first friend to see the score, and he immediately expressed interest in introducing it to the German capital. But Brahms also offered it to a still closer friend, the Berlin-based violinist-teacher-conductor Joseph Joachim, and it was Joachim who ultimately conducted the local premiere, on 4 January 1884 at the Academy of Arts. A few weeks later, after playing his First Piano Concerto, Brahms himself took the baton from Wüllner to conduct the rapturously received first Berliner Philharmoniker performance of the Third Symphony – the audience stormily demanded an encore of the third movement. It wasn’t until the following season that Wüllner finally got to conduct the piece.

The Third is the shortest, most concentrated and thematically unified of Brahms’s four symphonies. It opens with rising wind chords outlining the composer’s famous F-A-F (“frei aber froh” – “free but happy”) motto, which pervades the entire first movement in myriad guises – the broad descending main theme that follows is supported by the “F-A-F” motto, moved down to form the bass line – and makes a decisive, calming appearance at the end of the turbulent finale.

The two inner movements are tranquil interludes: an Andante that begins gently on pastoral woodwinds, with a solemn second theme on clarinet and bassoon that becomes increasingly important and plays a vital role in the last movement; then an introspective Poco allegretto in minor, with a hauntingly lovely theme introduced by cellos.

The dramatic finale of this F major symphony is, surprisingly, also in minor. Towards the end, the motto and main theme of the first movement, ushered in by the solemn theme from the Andante, return to bring this remarkable work to a peaceful close.

Brahms spent the next two summers at idyllic Mürzzuschlag in the Austrian province of Styria, again dividing his days between walks and work on a new symphony. Although he made cryptic allusions to it when writing to friends, his FourthSymphony was announced only after he completed it, in August 1885 – and then rather sardonically, Brahms comparing it to the perennially sour cherries of Mürzzuschlag in a letter to his confidante Elisabet von Herzogenberg. Writing to Hans von Bülow, whose Meiningen court orchestra Brahms conducted in the symphony’s first performance on 25 October, he dismissed it as a “few entr’actes”. (The Berliner Philharmoniker premiere a few months later was conducted by Joseph Joachim.)

Frau von Herzogenberg, who initially had some difficulty comprehending the work, soon came to appreciate its beauties and its grandeur, and her letters to Brahms make a delightful introduction to his last symphony [trans. Hannah Bryant]: “I can now trace the hills and valleys [of the opening Allegro non troppo] so clearly that I have lost the impression of its being a complicated movement ... The lovely second subject sounds tender and transparent ... The coda is no less admirable ... all pressing forward to the close with such a fine impetus, [lending] the whole movement a massivity for which one is hardly prepared by the first subject.”

“The Andante has that freshness and distinction of character with which only you could endow it, and even you have had recourse to certain locked chambers of your soul for the first time ... How exquisitely melodious it all is! – the parting phrase of the theme in E major ... the beautiful way in which the second subject is ushered in by an abridged version of itself! How every cellist will revel in this glorious long drawn-out song breathing of summer! ... The close, too, is delicious, with its modulation to C, which carries one back so happily to the opening bars, with their tinge of the Phrygian mode ... We rise from this feast desiring an interval in which to attune ourselves for the irresistible rough humour of the Scherzo; but it is not long before we surrender heart and soul to its gaiety and impetus.”

“As for the last movement ... I am fascinated by the theme itself [a repeated bass drawn by Brahms from Bach’s then unpublished Cantata 150] and the fascination grows as I follow it through its various phases, first in the bass, then in the top part or skilfully hidden somewhere in the middle ... Surely the movement will please an audience, too, even if they are unable to follow the passacaglia form: for there is no laborious weaving of the threads, but a succession of novel combinations ... One need not be a musician, thank Heaven, to come under the spell.”

EMISir Simon Rattle appears by kind permission of EMI Classics.

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